REVIEWED: Nightwish - ‘Human. :||: Nature.’
First, a short clarification; if you’re after consumer reportage, you can find a just-the-facts-ma’am, is-this-worth-your-money write up of this record in plenty of other places. Here, I’m hoping you’ll stick with me a little longer, to cover different ground. If you truly can’t wait for the verdict, then go forth knowing that ‘Human :||: Nature’ is a surprising, strange, and excellent Nightwish album. If you’ve already long-since streamed it by the time you read this, you’ll probably know that already. Stick with me awhile, then, and help me unpick a record that might just stick with all of us for some time yet to come.
In the first instance, ‘Human :||: Nature’ is beautiful, just as a work of recorded art. The first track of the first side, ‘Music’, easily my favourite of the whole album, makes this wonderfully clear. Listen on the best sound system you can possibly get a hold of for the full range of textures, strange and beguiling effects, and Floor Jansen’s album-stealing voice, here pushed to its fullest extent. More than anything else he’s done before, this is a showcase for band leader Tuomas Holopainen’s considerable skills as a composer and arranger.
The crisp, clear production and uncompressed mix makes due space for a whole soundscape of natural and unnatural tones blending and blurring together – whole forests, plains, mountains and savannahs are evoked in the mind before the human element, electric instrumentation, is even heard. This sets the tone completely. This album will be big, like all Nightwish records promise to be, but for the first time, it will be so in scope rather than in scale.
The ‘Human’ half of the record begins proper with lead single ‘Noise’, about as heavy as the album will ever get. ‘Noise’ is not a belter, like ‘Nemo’ or ‘Storytime’, because it’s approaching its concept with more than visceral feelings of joy or melancholy; it is trying, and succeeding, to make the audience look inward, make them anxious, turn the “endless noise” of modern life against the listener. It succeeds. This ambition, and a far more confident grasp of its inspiration, carries over into ‘Harvest’, and ‘How’s The Heart’, two gentle jigs that seem to have been built from the ground up to celebrate the orchestral and folk instrumentation as resources, in the natural sense of the word, exploitable and/or appreciable.
‘Shoemaker’ is an utterly phenomenal piece, whose ululating, yearning outro vocals put me in mind not of any metal song, but the great work ‘Lacrimosa’ by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, written in commemoration of a dear friend, used to great effect in the film ‘The Tree of Life’ and a wonderful surprise to hear here on a song of celebration. ‘Procession’ and ‘Endlessness’ are all of a piece as songs about time; the distant past, stretched over aeons, and the far future beyond the apocalypse that is Change. The former I loved for the piano and keyboard lines alone, the latter for Marco Hietala’s only turn on lead vocals, and for its nod to the classic novel ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’, whose famous repeated line ‘the fields we know’ is perfect for a song about coming upon the limits of waking Life, and stepping across a border into the unknown, into Death.
Some things fall short, of course. ‘Pan’ is a tone shifter, a straightforward metal track, and straightforwardly filler. Emphasis on flashy playing, especially from guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, has diminished with every record made; how much you’ve appreciated the jump depends on how far you can follow the songwriting. But there are times when flash is quite definitively needed, and without it ‘Pan’ is hopelessly generic. ‘Tribal’ fares better; but its ideas fail to strike. Drumming is never the star turn on Nightwish records, especially in Kai Haito’s unshowy hands, but it needed to be on a track concerned with the syncopation and intricate rhythms of so much of the “tribal” music it’s gesturing towards. Another perspective was needed here – Eurocentric models of ‘classical’ music have served Nightwish well, but ‘Tribal’ is the sound of someone evoking a spirit with which they seem barely acquainted.
And then, the band’s contribution is over. The ‘Nature’ side begins.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods. There is a rapture on the lowly shore. There is society where none intrudes by the de